I'm not a poetry expert.
Or put another way, I don't have refined taste in poetry. Unlike prose--novels, memoirs, essays--I don't feel comfortable putting out nuanced opinions on the quality of verse. I know really great poetry when I read it, and I know really bad poetry when I read it; I just can't recognize the stuff in between.
Fortunately, Here, Bullet--Brian Turner's poetry collection, centered around his experience as a Soldier in Iraq--is great poetry. It could be the best war literature of any medium published since 9/11; it's certainly the best book I've read so far. I've spent the last couple weeks explaining why war memoirs don't make for great literature, and it's draining to be so negative, so often. It's a relief to come out and say I love something. Every semi-literate person interested in the Iraq war needs to read this book, ingest it, remember it, and share it with others.
Here, Bullet opens with a bang:
"The word for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin
Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again."
Wow. Six lines, but so much is going on: Arabic culture, history, writing, war. These lines introduce the book's primary theme, and the thing that sets this book apart more than any other work of literature I've read by Americans about Iraq: an understanding of Iraq's (ancient) history. Iraq--Mesopotamia--is the oldest place in the world, the birth place of civilization. Baghdad, in particular, is the historic home of the Caliphate, the center of the Islamic world for centuries, with more history per square foot than anywhere else in the world (Michael disagrees and thinks Rome has more history, but still). This is the first book I've read where I felt that connection to Iraq. It was a revelation. Aside from some stories on Baghdad museum looting, no one has really mentioned it.
"This is the spice road of old, the caravan trail/of camel dust and heat..."
Brian Turner's instincts are mostly impeccable. There's maybe one bad poem in this collection. Like a trained rifleman, he focuses his sights on all the right targets. Turner writes about the Baghdad zoo fiasco, an incident I think represents the entire invasion. He pays attention to animals, using their imagery to fuel his verse. Ox and buffalo pop up again and again ("remembers her standing at the canebrake/where the buffalo cooled shoulder-deep in the water...") He finds beauty everywhere he looks: "Owls rest in the vines of grape." "Bats fly out by the hundred."
But in Here, Bullet, these very alive animals live in a world filled with ghosts and the dead. “The ghosts of American soldiers/wander the streets of Balad by night...And the Iraqi dead,/they watch in silence from the rooftops.” It is all so haunting and perfect. "...when the dead/speak to us, we must ask them,/to wait, to be patient..." When the narrator watches others through his scope at night, he feels as if he has become a ghost.
And of course there is sadness. "Eulogy," based on real events, is so sad it is almost unreadable. So is the poem "16 Iraqi Policemen." This realism could have become a distraction or a crutch, but I think it adds to works impact.
Some final notes:
- Turner's poem "Hurt Locker," at one page, is way better than the film The Hurt Locker.
- The poem "What Every Soldier Should Know" is beautiful. You should try to find it.
- Turner quotes TS Eliot twice, first in his eponymous poem, "because here, Bullet,/here is where the worlds ends, every time."; next April's air is "dry/ as the shoulders of a water buffalo." I love Eliot, so I love this echoing. It shows Turner is a poet's poet, someone who recognizes history and what came before.
- Finally, there is the poem Sadiq. I'll try to post it here if Mr. Turner will let us.
One of my goals in writing art posts here at On Violence is to find the great war literature of this generation. That's why I am usually so negative; I haven't found greatness yet. I haven't found books I would canonize.
Until I read Here, Bullet. An anthology came out in 2005, Voices in War, canonizing the works of writers writing during wartime--essentially the canon of war literature. The editors included Brian Turner. That sounds about right to me.
I'm not a poetry expert.